Monday, 16 November 2009

Peter Oborne and the Israel Lobby

Peter Oborne writes:


It is impossible to imagine any British political leader showing such equanimity and tolerance if British troops had committed even a fraction of the human rights abuses and war crimes of which Israel has been accused.


(My italics)

Tonight on Channel 4, Oborne is presenting a Dispatches programme on the "Israel lobby" and its supposed vast influence in Britain. The document from which that particular (and highly representative) quote is taken is a lengthy report available at Open Democracy. Having read it fairly quickly, I am truly disturbed - not by its "findings", which strike me as fairly bog-standard "Israelophobia" (I'm trying not to use the word "antisemitism" here, partly because all the Israel-denouncers quoted here profess themselves appalled by the insinuation, but to be honest I'm not finding it easy) but by the fact that a serious, proper and generally sound journalist like Oborne should be propagating them. I like Peter Oborne. His anatomy of the political class in Britain and the havoc it has wrought on our democracy. But this stuff is dangerous, and he should know better. I assume that, like so many who venture into this territory, he's simply naive.

Cranmer reproduces some of the vile comments that have appeared on the Channel 4 website below an article publicising the programme. It's vile stuff - "the hand of global Zionism at work", that kind of thing. You might say that's just the ranting of some crazed antisemitic conspiracy theorist whose well-thumbed copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion sits proudly on the shelf next to Mein Kampf. But it's also a very fair summary of the conclusions reached by Oborne, and presented at very great length at Open Democracy. There's a lengthy section, for example, detailing the baleful influence at Westminster wielded by organisations sympathetic to the Middle East's only democrary. "Many of the most sensitive foreign affairs, defence and intelligence posts in the House of Commons are occupied by Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel," we learn. The implication is clear: British foreign policy, like that of the United States, is controlled by those Israelis and their minions.

Except that it isn't. To Israel-bashers (and this is what smokes them out as being, despite their protestations, at least unconsciously anti-semitic) only the powerful, secret influence of behind-the-scenes conspirators could possibly explain why British pronouncements aren't as damning of Israel as those made by the governments of, say, Iran or Syria. After all, what possible reason could a democracy have to support the right of another democracy to defend itself against terrorism and the ever-present hostility of the surrounding despotic regimes? Why not simply bow down before the obvious fact that Israel is the main, indeed the only, obstacle to peace?

After all, it says so in the Guardian. So it must be true.

Let's return for a moment to the remark of Oborne's I quoted at the beginning. Is it possible to imagine any British political leader showing such equanimity and tolerance if British troops had committed even a fraction of the human rights abuses and war crimes of which Israel has been accused? You bet it is. It happens every day. British troops - and American troops - have been accused of worse crimes and human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq than Israeli troops have been accused of in Gaza. No Israeli military guards I'm aware of stand accused of raping entirely innocent detainees, either for their own pleasure or their captives' humiliation. In terms of the number of innocent civilians killed, Anglo-American operations by common consent vastly outnumbers those killed during Operation Cast Lead. Of course, these civilians deaths were unintentional. But then so were the deaths caused by the Israelis unintentional. To claim otherwise is a pernicious lie propagated by the hate-filled and repeated by the terminally naive.

This singling out of Israel for particular blame fills me with disgust and anger. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not - as it happens - Jewish (though why should this even be relevant?). Nor am I a member of any "Israeli lobby". If Israeli personnel committed war crimes in Gaza, they should be investigated and, if necessary, punished; so should American, British, French, Chinese or Egyptian personnel. Israel is not perfect. No country is: though Israel, with its freedom of speech, sexual equality (the Israeli army could teach its British equivalent a thing or two about that) and respect for sexual minorities is vastly superior to most of the surrounding countries. That in itself, rather than any sinister Israeli "lobby", ought to explain why Western governments might have sympathy for the country. The surprising thing is why they have of recent years become so overtly critical of Israel. Presumably oil has something to do with that.

I don't subscribe to the view that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. But then neither does anyone else, not even Melanie Phillips. I am, however, coming to the view that the converse is true: that to accuse Israel's defenders of making that claim does indeed have a whiff of anti-Semitism about it. Because they don't. It is just that part of the ancient stereotype of unscrupulous Jews assumes that they would behave like that. In fact, Israel's defenders merely point out that Israel is held to higher standards, not just than the surrounding dictatorships, but higher even than our own countries. There's no equivalent of the Goldstone report into Iraq: if there were, it would be, I suspect, far more damning. The truth is that much of the media and the political/diplomatic world is disproportionately, bizarrely, almost psychotically obsessed with Israel and its dealings with the Palestinians.

If you want an explanation of why there's an Israel lobby, and why it has to lobby so hard, start there.